Attacks on journalists in Egypt abate after 2 days of violence

After widespread attacks on journalists on Wednesday and Thursday, violence and intimidation against journalists in Egypt abated on Friday, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Yesterday we were frankly overwhelmed trying to document all the attacks,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the organization, which tracks repression and violence against journalists worldwide.

But Friday, “it’s a very different atmosphere,” he said. With the exception of isolated clashes, “journalists have been able to function.”

Unlike the day before, journalists have been able to get to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Some reporters have been turned away at the square, Simon said, but in some cases the protesters themselves may have tried to keep the journalists out because they thought it wasn’t safe for them.

After we talked, however, the organization posted an update on its website describing continued attempts to obstruct news coverage:

“In the last 24 hours, CPJ documented another 10 anti-press assaults, eight detentions, two attacks on newsrooms, and the hacking of a major news website. In all, CPJ has documented at least 101 direct attacks on journalists and news facilities this week, and it’s investigating numerous other reports.”

Violence against journalists peaked on Thursday, as they reported being surrounded and beaten by crowds of people, having their equipment smashed and taken, and even having their hotel rooms ransacked. The attackers seemed to focus on non-Egyptians, particularly those easily identified as Westerners and carrying camera gear, according to Simon. Most of the reports came from Cairo, where the majority of international media are working.

Though some of the injuries were serious, none were life-threatening, Simon said.

However, a journalist died Friday, a week after being shot while photographing clashes between protesters and security forces.

Associated Press photographer Khalil Hamra was injured on Thursday during clashes between anti-government demonstrators and their pro-government supporters in Cairo's Tahrir square. (AP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

“No question, there was a systematic attack underway to stop, particularly, international media from covering the events in Egypt,” he said. “It could have been part of a campaign to eliminate potential witnesses … That’s why we were very aggressive in demanding that this campaign cease.”

Thursday afternoon, the U.S. State Department called for the Egyptian government to protect journalists documenting the demonstrations. Simon said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement was “strong and unequivocal.”

Simon said he didn’t know of any journalists still detained by the Egyptian government – although that’s not the case for Egyptian and international human rights activists.

And on Friday, Al Jazeera reported that thugs had stormed its office in Cairo and set fire to some of the equipment.

A prominent Egyptian blogger, Wael Abbas, tweeted Friday that he had been arrested by the army; an hour and a half later, he said he had been released, although he said he was being stopped “every 5 minutes now for looking like foreigners and having a camera and a laptop!”

In some ways, Simon said, the violence against journalists in Egypt was unprecedented. The closest comparison would be Iran in June 2009, when demonstrations erupted to challenge the legitimacy of the presidential election.

In that case, international journalists were arrested, accused of spying, confined to their bureaus and mistreated, Simon said.

“What is different in this case is the level of physical violence against the journalists and how quickly it turned,” Simon said.

“It went from journalists being welcomed by protesters in the square to journalists being targeted. The level of physical violence and the rapidity with which the situation changed – that’s not something I can recall seeing before.”

Though improved, Simon cautioned that the situation in Egypt is volatile. “We have to be extremely attentive to any systematic effort to restrict the work of journalists, because there is no doubt in my mind that the presence of international media has been a break on some of the worst abuses.”

Considering what has been documented, “one could only imagine what they could do if they thought there were no witnesses.”

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